No Time To Die: the Top Gear review
The latest James Bond movie is out now. Here's TG's verdict on Daniel Craig's final outing as 007
Daniel Craig once admitted that he’d rather ‘slash his wrists’ than play James Bond again. He was being mischievous but he also strongly suggested that Spectre wasn’t the send-off he wanted. That film had its moments but was derailed by a daft final act.
Make no mistake, No Time To Die is Craig’s film, a giant of a movie that leans heavily on all the things we love about Bond – the action sequences, the fabulous locations and yes, the car chases – while stirring in elements that are unfamiliar.
Bond movies have always been explosive, but this one makes your ears buzz, widens your eyes but most importantly knocks you sideways emotionally. To say much more would take us into the realms of spoiler alerts, and this is a film whose ups and downs deserve the fullest possible big screen immersion.
And that’s a critical point. No Time To Die lands with more pressure on its shoulders than any mere film – even a Bond one – should ever have to cope with. It hasn’t had the smoothest ride – Danny Boyle was originally attached to direct, but walked over creative differences – and obviously a certain global pandemic delayed the film’s arrival not once but twice. So this time out 007 doesn’t just have to save the world and his soul, he also finds himself the saviour of cinema itself.
No worries on that score: director Cary Fukunaga – whose background is in prestige American television such as True Detective – handles the swaggering set-pieces with the confidence of a seasoned pro, while giving the film a satisfyingly textured look and feel. Credit where it’s due, though: Bond movies attract the best practitioners in the business, and the second unit, stunt co-ordinators and production designers all do stunning work here. Shocking liberties are taken with the Aston Martin DB5 in a thrilling – and incredibly long – pre-credit sequence, and various Land Rover products are imaginatively pummelled.
But this is also a very different sort of Bond: there are secrets and lies, of course, but the scriptwriters - Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Phoebe Waller-Bridge - bring a serious emotional wallop to proceedings. The latter was apparently brought in at Craig’s behest, and while this is far from a feminist Fleabag rewrite, or even particularly woke for that matter, you can detect her wonderful, waspish touch. Bond’s famous one-liners don’t always land: here they really do, and there are a couple of absolute corkers.
Following an unexpectedly spooky prelude, we start pretty much where Spectre left off, with Bond and his paramour Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) vacationing in the southern Italian town of Matera. It’s a sun-dappled, soft-focus scenario: when she asks him to drive faster, he smiles and says ‘we have all the time in the world’. It’s a fan-pleasing call-back to 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but also a harbinger of what’s to come. Amongst other things, Bond has come here to make peace with a key part of his past, but it seems his past isn’t ready to make peace with him. Even with Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) incarcerated Hannibal Lecter-style in Belmarsh prison, SPECTRE is still on his case and Dr Swann’s family connections in that regard prove unhelpful. Watching Craig articulate 007’s impotent fury as the penny drops and the bullets bounce off the Aston is an early highlight.
Later, Bond is dragged reluctantly out of retirement (he has a lovely place in Jamaica and catches his own fish) by old CIA buddy Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), and heads to Santiago de Cuba to infiltrate a SPECTRE gathering. He’s assigned a young agent called Paloma (Ana de Armas), who frankly steals the entire show for the 20 minutes she’s in it. New 00 agent Nomi (Lashana Lynch) also weighs in here in spectacular style, this brilliant duo upending years of under-written and decorative female characters in the Bond-iverse. (De Armas is one of the stars of upcoming Netflix spy thriller The Gray Man and on this evidence she has all the chops. Lynch, meanwhile, could definitely handle her own spin-off.)
Anyway, the nefarious criminal syndicate has acquired a chemical bio-weapon known as Heracles via a rogue scientist called Obruchev (David Dencik). This injects nanobots into your bloodstream and rewrites the infected DNA so that it’s toxic… after which it all gets a bit silly and confusing, and there’s even a ridiculous bionic eyeball. But look, it doesn’t really matter. The question of who’s really responsible for it in the first place, who’s stolen it and why, means that the plot is right on-the-nose as the real world reassembles post-Covid. Trust no-one, believe nothing, don’t poke about in the shadows… that kind of thing.
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Lurking there we find the film’s principal villain Lyutsifer Safin (a compellingly creepy Rami Malek), who has connections to Swann, SPECTRE, and cultivates a poisonous garden on a remote Asia-Pacific island. For Bond fans, the echoes here of Dr No and You Only Live Twice are irresistible, down to the presence of dutiful minions who are naturally destined to be cannon fodder (doesn’t anyone ever warn them about that in the job centre?) The film could have done with more from Malek, who insists he shares 007’s repressed red-hot rage and hits Bond where it hurts much more painfully than any previous Bond uber-villain has managed.
Bits of No Time To Die really are a bit silly. Much has been made of its 2hr 43 minute running time, and it definitely does sag a little somewhere around the halfway mark. And from a Top Gear point of view, there have been superior car chases in previous Bond outings. But it’s also gripping, funny, and heartwarming in a way that 007 has rarely been before. Trust me, there are moments that will make you catch your breath. It really gets under your skin.
Ultimately, though, it’s still a full-throttle Bond film. There’s a single-shot sequence as the movie hurtles towards its climax that’s as good as anything that’s ever appeared in any Bond film, a reminder that while at heart No Time To Die is a story about love, truth and reconciliation, this is also 007 at his most bone-crunchingly brutal. Craig, his handsome face now characterfully lined in close-up, still looks great wielding a semi-automatic machine gun.
So, yes, Bond saves cinema. As for his soul, you can ponder that one as the film reaches its mighty conclusion. Get ready.